Seeing Around The Curve
How does a technological revolution begin? Sometimes, the spark is lit by a brand-new invention: the airplane, the telephone, the X-ray. In other cases, the breakthrough comes with the reworking of an existing technology — a change that makes an old invention radically more efficient, more reliable, more useful and affordable.
Thomas Alva Edison didn't invent the light bulb, but he developed the first mass-producible bulb that could burn steadily for long periods. George Eastman didn't invent photography, but he devised the first cheap, hand-held camera that could be operated by anyone who could push a button. Bill Gates and Paul Allen didn't invent the personal computer, but they created the operating system that made the PC accessible to the masses.
What all those revolutionaries had in common was not just technical brilliance, but boldness of vision – and a cunning sense of the marketplace. Long before their peers, each recognized that a new era was waiting to emerge. And they owed much of their success to farsighted investors who were equally eager to embrace their vision of the future. Consider this — the Edison Electric Light Company was founded in 1878, two years before the wizard of Menlo Park patented his incandescent bulb.
At the time, Edison was known mainly for inventing the phonograph, even then a primitive device whose tin-foil cylinders shredded after a couple of playbacks. Yet financiers J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt were sufficiently dazzled by his genius — and his promise of an electrically illuminated world — to put their fortunes at his disposal. It paid off. By 1882, the world's first commercial power plant was lighting a square mile of Lower Manhattan. "We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles," Edison vowed, and, within a few years, his prophecy had come true.
New business models have often been key to driving technological revolutions. Until the early 1920s, radio was the realm of hobbyists and ship-to-shore telegraphers. In fact, the original radio patents envisioned only one-to-one communication — broadcasting wasn't even a consideration. Then David Sarnoff began to build the RCA broadcasting network and a multi-billion dollar global economy was born.
In the 1950s, North Carolina trucking entrepreneur Malcolm McLean grew impatient with the inefficiencies of overseas shipping, so he lopped the wheels off of some tractor-trailers and sailed them from Newark to Houston. Thus was conceived containerization, and with it the greatest transformation of world trade since Columbus. When Mark Andreessen and Jim Clark took Netscape public in 1995, only the geekiest of geeks had heard of the Internet, but their monster IPO, as much as their pioneering browser, made the worldwide Web a household phrase and forever changed the meaning of the word "surfing" — and the fortunes of thousands of investors.
Today, a second Internet revolution is in the offing — one that extends beyond the limitations of the original design and creates a global network of truly epic dimension. Yes, the Internet we use today has changed the world in a million ways, but its fundamental operating principles were locked in place in the 1970s, a time when water-cooled mainframes spoke to each other by telephone-cradle modems and the entire US Space effort ran on computers less powerful than we now find in a kitchen appliance.
Today's Internet is increasingly constrained by its humble origins and the cracks are beginning to show. Since 2000, the United States, by virtue of its dominant position within the status quo, has been asleep at the wheel while Asia and Europe, after decades of playing catch-up ball, have been quick to seize the opportunity at hand. The most forward-looking nations understand that to own a big piece of the future, a new infrastructure must emerge to accommodate the full potential of a networked world. And at the core of this massive global upgrade is the technology called Internet Protocol Version 6.
To understand the implications of this massive transformation to IPv6, it helps to think back to Edison's day. Although his power distribution system was a marvel of the age, its dependence on direct-current technology seriously limited its scalability. Low-voltage DC required large currents, and was hobbled by huge power losses; long-distance transmission was impractical. Only when George Westinghouse perfected his AC system in the 1890s (after a bitter "war of currents, " in which Edison sought to demonstrate AC's deadliness by electrocuting an elephant) did the electrification of an entire continent become a possibility.
IPv6 is to today's Internet protocol, IPV4, as AC was to DC. By allowing trillions upon trillions of unique addresses (compared to the IPV4's 4 billion), IPv6 will allow virtually every device on the planet to communicate directly online. Media will stream in untrammeled torrents. Security will be woven into the fabric of every application. And this new protocol, which will supplant IPV4 over the next decade, is arriving not a moment too soon.
We are standing at the threshold of another quantum leap in global technology — a moment when a few visionary minds light up the future and illuminate a clear path toward immense social and economic opportunity — a path offered to many, but seized by few.
When history looks back on this time, a handful of people will be able to say they were in the lobby when the New Internet was born. Some of these people will be engineers, some will be entrepreneurs, some will be investors, but many of them will share one common characteristic — they will be very, very wealthy.